Controversy Dogs ‘Jacket’ Score As It’s Barred From Oscar Race

Controversy is no stranger in the films of Stanley Kubrick. Whether the subject is nuclear holocaust (“Dr. Strangelove”), the meaning of life (“2001"), violence (“A Clockwork Orange”) or the futility of war (“Full Metal Jacket”), Kubrick’s films get people talking.

Controversy apparently runs in the family.

Kubrick’s daughter, music composer Abigail Mead, managed to provoke controversy with her original score--her first--for her father’s “Full Metal Jacket.”

Frederic S. Silber, a critic for the music journal Fanfare, dismissed Mead’s score as a “bland, unfeeling and plodding effort,” while fellow Fanfare critic Royal S. Brown called it “incredibly potent--and original--stuff that should definitely be considered at Oscar time.”


The score has been considered at Oscar time, and it has prompted a second controversy. A committee of film composers in the music branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voted unanimously to reject the “Full Metal Jacket” score for consideration on the ground that there is not a sufficient amount of original material for it to qualify.

The decision puts Mead in good company. Many major composers have had their works rejected during the music branch’s Academy Award screening process. Nino Rota’s heralded score for “The Godfather” in 1972 was rejected. Alex North’s score for “Prizzi’s Honor” was rejected two years ago, as was North’s current score for John Huston’s “The Dead.”

Academy music committee chairman John Addison, himself a composer (“Tom Jones”) said the judgment on the “Full Metal Jacket” score “was unanimous.” The committee has 28 members.

“There were key moments of the film that used pop tunes,” Addison explained, referring to Kubrick’s implementation of such disparate ‘60s songs as Tom T. Hall’s “Hello Vietnam” and the Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird.”

“Fifty percent (of the sound track) was not (Mead’s),” he said. “Significantly, the whole committee’s feeling was that the songs played as key a role in the film as the original music. What Mead wrote, while effective, didn’t stand up as a substantial body of music for dramatic underscoring.”

Mead disagrees.

“I think it would be unfair to deem it unqualified because of the amount or percentage of music that was mine,” she said, in a phone interview from London. “I don’t know if (the committee’s) argument holds up. I would be surprised if there was more pop music on the sound track than music I wrote.”

Jan Harlan, Kubrick’s executive producer, also contacted in London, added, “I think it’s absurd to call her work not substantial enough. It’s a wonderful score which advances the dramatic narrative.”

Mead’s original music, all executed on synthesizers, infused what sounded like detonated bombs, doors swinging on rusty hinges and asthmatic exhaling with drum harmonics and French horn-like blasts. Some critics called it innovative film scoring. Addison reacted differently.

“Repeating a sequence on drums for two minutes was not especially imaginative,” he said.

Mead, trying to make sense of the percentage game, consulted her music cue sheets (later corroborated by a copy supplied to The Times by the music branch). The tally: Mead’s portion was 22:26 minutes, the pop music totaled 17:39 minutes (including 5:02 minutes over opening and closing credits).

Not included in those totals are nearly four minutes of on-screen music, mostly march cadences barked out by Lee Ermey’s ferocious drill instructor in the film’s early sequences. Add this to the non-Mead side of the ledger, and you come out with roughly the 50-50 mix Addison referred to.

This even split in numbers sparked a closer review of the film, according to a panel member who requested anonymity. Yet, the disqualification was based less on numbers than on the final impression the music made on the group, the panelist said.

Despite the fact that Mead’s music was heard during every key death scene--representing every key plot point--in the film, the panel member said the pop tunes seemed to dominate Mead’s original scoring. The same thing happened with the title music, the panelist said, adding that a person walking out of the film would be unclear as to who actually wrote the music.

Dilution and impression are important terms this year for the music branch in determining a score’s Oscar caliber. The committee decided to tighten up the rules after Herbie Hancock won the Oscar for best original score last year for “ ‘Round Midnight"--a film, the panelist argued, more memorable for its jazz standards than Hancock’s original work.

According to the 1987 Oscar rules book, “Scores diluted by the use of tracked (inserted music not written by the composer) or pre-existing music” are not eligible.

“These rules are an attempt to set guidelines to assess scores for outstanding achievement,” Addison said. “The new rule was typical in helping to make guidelines more useful in determining excellence. (The score) may greatly please the director, but that doesn’t make it a great score.”

Mead says that Kubrick was indeed pleased, and not because she is his daughter.

“There is no way that he would work on a film for four years, and risk it all with lousy music by one of his offspring,” Mead said. “He believed in me, that I would do a good sound track.”

Mead said she got the composing job for “Full Metal Jacket” after her father asked her if she could come up with something to replace Japanese drum music that he had ordered--and didn’t like--for the film’s trailer.

“He liked what I gave him so much that he asked me to do the original score,” she said.

(It isn’t the first time she’s been a part of a Kubrick project: She was the little girl who talked over the television phone to her father in “2001"; she worked in “The Shining’s” art department; and is on-screen in the open grave scene in “Full Metal Jacket.”)

Mead said she changed her name from Vivian Kubrick to Abigail Mead because she wanted her work to be evaluated on merit, not lineage. Mead said that her father, to whom she refers by his first name, was not thrilled with the first nom de plume she suggested: Moses Lumpkin.

“Stanley was horrified by that. I thought of the house our family used to live in, where we had many good times, and like many in England, it had a name: ‘Abbotts-mead.’ Abbott became Abigail, and then Stanley had someone look up the name’s meaning. Its ancient meaning is ‘a father rejoices.’ He loves coincidences, and he really loved this one.”

Mead had originally been under the impression that her score was counted out because she had delivered the necessary paperwork to the music branch past the filing deadline. (Academy rules require that all composers wishing to qualify must submit the proper form with an attached music cue sheet no later than 60 days after the film’s Los Angeles opening.)

“I’m not a member of the musicians’ union, and because I had never done a film score before, I didn’t know the entry procedures,” she said. “Besides, (the academy deadline date) fell at an utterly chaotic time, when I was preparing the sound-track record.” (Mead is in rarefied company on this point too: Ennio Morricone also missed the deadline for qualifying his score for “Once Upon a Time in America” in 1984.)

Mead can take consolation from the success of a single, “I Wanna Be Your Drill Instructor,” concocted by her and guitarist Nigel Goulding and inspired by Ermey’s drill chants. (The song is on the sound-track album, but not in the film). It reached No. 2 in the British pop charts last October and went silver (250,000 sold) in much of Europe.

“I always wanted to do pop tunes,” Mead noted, ironically. “But I never thought it would happen this way.”